Easily One of the Best Movies I've Seen This Year9/10
I came into ParaNorman with a sense of cautious optimism. I absolutely adore stop motion animation, and I genuinely fell in love with Coraline, LAIKA's previous effort, but the trailers for the film didn't capture my interest in the story in the way I hoped they would and this film also didn't have the benefit of being helmed by the brilliant Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Coraline). That being said, I am extremely happy to report that ParaNorman absolutely delivers on every level you could hope for.
ParaNorman tells a story about a young boy named Norman who has the unusual ability to see and talk to the dead, an ability which has led him to be ostracized by the other members of his community, including his own family. The New England town in which he lives is famous for a historic witch execution, along with the legend of a curse that the witch put upon those who sentenced her to death. It turns out that the legend of the curse is true, and that Norman, with his ability to talk to the dead, is the only one who can prevent the curse from raising the dead. Unfortunately, Norman is unable to act fast enough and the Witch's curse begins to wreak havoc on the town.
ParaNorman is a film with many strengths. Stop motion animation is always a beautiful and fascinating process, and with new technological advances the filmmakers have been able to bring it to a level of detail and expression that are simply astounding. While the scope of the story may be smaller than something like Coraline or Nightmare Before Christmas, the scale of the stop motion sets for this town are truly incredible. The film absolutely immerses you in this world that feels like a living, breathing, place. As beautiful as the animation in Brave was, ParaNorman is easily the most visually impressive film I have seen this year.
As beautiful as the film is, it never falls into the trap of so many other animated films by simply being visual spectacle with no narrative soul. The story of the film is fun, intelligent, and heartfelt, and is supported by a great cast of characters. The odd kid who is misunderstood is a common trope in kids' movies, but what makes Norman stand out is that he's never mopey about it. He is ostracized, bullied, and rejected, but he's come to a kind of acceptance about the whole thing. He's certainly not happy about it, but at this point he's not trying to fit in, he's really just trying to keep his head down and get through the daily grind. This is part of what makes his relationship with the other characters in the film work so well. For instance Neil genuinely accepts Norman for who he is and it's obvious that this throws Norman for a loop and he doesn't really know how to interact with someone who "gets him." This is never spoken, but it plays out naturally through the performances of the characters.
As the narrative progresses it takes some really interesting turns, and at times is genuinely surprising and emotional. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that a large part of the narrative revolves around assumptions and misunderstanding, and it brilliantly uses the audience's assumptions and expectations about the genre and its conventions against them.
It's also worth mentioning that this is one of the rare films which decidedly benefits from the addition of 3D. There's some fun play with perspective, and being able to see the dimension that exists in these sets adds a lot to the experience.
I genuinely loved ParaNorman and it's easily one of my favorite films this year. It's not a movie for everyone, but if any of the trailers gave you even a glimmer of interest I would definitely recommend checking this one out. LAIKA is certainly beginning to make a name for themselves in the animation scene and I'm really looking forward to whatever their next project will be. I think I still prefer Coraline which definitely benefited from the combination of Neil Gaiman's fantastic story and Henry Selick's experienced hand, but ParaNorman is a truly fantastic film and it's definitely worth a look.